The Oppositional Child
A 5-yer-old in my class is very negative and bossy. She consistently tries to defy our classroom rules. She has difficulty making transitions from one activity to another, and can't seem to get along with other children. Her parents say she has always been oppositional. Is there anything I can do to help?
Avoid Power Struggles
The tricky thing is that in trying to manage or limit their defiant behavior, we can stir these children to be even more oppositional. If we get caught up in power struggles with the child, we run the risk of pushing her over the edge. Her behavior can get more extreme and less in accord with reality-sometimes even to the detriment of her own safety. At some point, this child may even be labeled with "oppositional defiant disorder." That is unfortunate. But if we recognize that the child is trying to control the world of her senses, and that there is even some adaptive value in that effort, we can avoid the power struggles.
Implement Classroom Strategies
Here are some strategies you can try in your classroom to help you work more effectively with the oppositional child:
Look for win-win situations. Give the child choices that are acceptable to you, but also true choices for her.
Develop a relationship with her parents, so you all approach the problem in the same way. For example, if the child resists getting dressed in the morning (or getting ready to go outdoors in school), the parent could ask the child to help come up with a solution, such as getting clothes ready the evening before when there is much more time and less pressure.
Give the child lots of opportunity to flex her muscles in constructive ways, in order to deal with aggression and frustration. She is likely to feel frustrated and angry often, since the world feels overwhelming to her. There are constructive avenues for expressing those feelings, including imaginative play, a lot of floor time, and a lot of problem-solving discussions.
Offer the child practice in being flexible with her peers. Help her work on compromising and seeking new solutions to problems. Oppositional children can be a little more finicky about which of their classmates they can get along with. If the child feels more comfortable with certain groups of children, get her input about whom she would like to have be a part of her work or play group.
Encourage creativity. A more creative thinker can always come up with her own solutions. Engage the child in a lot of projects where she can exercise her creativity.
Focus on Flexibility
It's important to engage the child in exercises that stretch her ability to go from a fixed to a more flexible way of doing something. For example, I was working with a child who liked to play a game where he wound up his cars to race on a racetrack. He insisted that they always be set up in the same way, and the same car always had to win. I decided that I would be the pretend mechanic. I said, "Oh, you just ran into engine trouble. What are we going to do?" Then I explained that it would be a hard problem to fix. The car might be in the shop for weeks, and it might not have the speed that it had before. I threw several new roadblocks in the way. By doing this, you ease the child into a reason for creating novel solutions. Keep in mind that you must be flexible too. Create choices for the child that you can live with, and that allow her to feel that she's not giving in to adult control. If we use flexibility, empathy, and creativity, avoid power struggles, and don't take what the child says at face value, we can turn things around. We can make something that might have been perceived as a command from an adult into something the child herself chooses to do.